Among the financially unlucky right now, one question reigns supreme: Which bills can I simply not pay and for how long?

A second is right behind it and perhaps even more fraught: Who ought to give me my money back?

Millions of people are wondering about refunds from airlines, concert venues and tuition-charging institutions that are not in session in any normal sort of way. For the 22 million people and counting who have filed for unemployment benefits, it is probably a simple matter: You take absolutely everything back that you possibly can. Ditto for those who face a large imminent decline in income.

But for consumers who are not yet desperate, it quickly gets complicated.

Some companies that already have your money are not very sympathetic. Take airlines, or leave them if only you could.

Some of the large carriers are of strategic importance to the economy, and this week they received their bailout. Yet even as they knew that they would almost certainly get their hands on our tax money, many held customers’ money hostage. Their behavior was so entitled that the Department of Transportation felt compelled to issue an enforcement notice demanding that they offer a “prompt refund” when they cancel a flight or make a significant schedule change and the passenger isn’t willing to accept it.

Advertising

Then there’s Ticketmaster, a long-reviled company that put itself back in consumers’ crosshairs by making it look like they could get their money back only if shows were canceled instead of postponed. The company now says that it was all a big misunderstanding and that most people can get their money in a month or two.

That sounds slow, but the company makes a reasonable point about how complicated it is to offer refunds: Ticketmaster says it has forwarded most of what customers paid to the entities that would put on the events.

Other companies’ policies underscore different complications. Consider vacation rental site Vrbo, which relies equally on the hosts who make properties available and the guests who rent them. It split things down the middle, asking guests to accept as little as 50% back from hosts, if they could not find alternate dates, for stays from March 13 to April 30.

That policy hardly seems right — or good for public health — when you may feel pressure to keep your reservation because you can’t get a full refund. Vrbo doesn’t see it that way.

“While we know our emergency policy isn’t perfect, we feel it was the fairest way to handle an impossible situation,” a company spokeswoman, Melanie Fish, said in an email. For every affected traveler, the company says, there is someone else relying on the terms of a cancellation policy to pay mortgages and employees. (Many hosts, Fish added, offered more than 50% back or a credit toward a future stay.)

The policy, though, still rings a bit hollow. Vrbo seems to want consumers to treat all hosts as struggling entrepreneurs. For some, the rental property may be their only source of income — and the company’s policy works reasonably well for them. But many other hosts are making extra money off the second home that they could already afford.

Advertising

No traveler who is struggling wants to be on the hook for the income stream of someone else who owns a spare property somewhere pretty. If a refund is on offer, don’t feel bad taking it if you can’t make a trip or now don’t think it’s wise. (Airbnb, for what it’s worth, refunded all money to travelers in similar situations.)

Then there are more painful choices.

For some businesses — like summer camps, day care centers and after-school programs — your decision on whether to seek a refund will be crucial. And if you don’t get a refund, you’re taking a risk: If these establishments go under before you’ve used whatever credit they’ve offered you, you’re not going to get a cent unless you line up in bankruptcy court with the other creditors.

A note arrived recently in the inboxes of parents planning to send their children to the French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts, a camp in New York’s Catskill Mountains. It said families would receive a nonrefundable credit toward camp in 2021 if the state kept the camp from opening or if it opened late and families couldn’t attend. It also mentioned the possibility that some insurance would kick in and provide partial refunds.

In the normal course of events, many people do not like to hear the word “nonrefundable” when an entity seems to want to hold on to thousands of your dollars and then wait a year to give you the service that you paid for, when you may not want or need it anymore. And how are you supposed to pay for alternative programming or care this summer in the meantime? That was the opinion of the parent who sent the note my way.

When I spoke to Ron Schaefer, founder of French Woods, he expressed exasperation at first. The camp’s intent, he said, is to give refunds to any family that wants one, once it has funds available. Cash flow is tricky for camps, especially right now, when they’re spending money to prepare for an opening that may not happen.

Schaefer, who has been at this in one form or another for more than 50 years, then answered the question that I hadn’t really wanted to ask: How many refund requests would put French Woods out of business if it didn’t operate at all this summer? He said that if 70% or 80% of families requested a refund — and some already have — that would probably do it.

Advertising

Even among similar types of businesses, the figure will be different. Nonprofit camps with large endowments or big umbrella organizations may be fine if even more request refunds. The not-much-profit camps that are run on a shoestring by a debt-laden sole owner may not survive if they have to give back even half of what parents have paid.

Lawyers are already involved. An association of Maine camps put two to work recently on providing refund information to worried directors. It ended on a note of some eloquence — searching and perhaps a bit pleading.

“The established culture of the COVID-19 pandemic,” they wrote, “seems to be to do no further economic harm.”

Indeed, this is what it comes down to for so many people: Whose harm matters more or is most imminent? Every refund request means weighing your household’s economic uncertainty against the perhaps equally precarious status of any given person or place that has your money but can’t deliver on all its promises.

People are or may soon come under pressure to become bankers of sorts, offering no-interest loans of a year or longer to French Woods and other beloved (or less beloved) billers. Most everyone then becomes a loan officer, deciding who will have the best shot at still being open next fall, next spring and in summer 2021.

There is no rulebook for these decisions, only a question.

Once upon a time, weeks ago when so much felt so different, these entities had value to you. Would you lose more from their absence in the coming years than you’d risk by helping, if you can, at this strange, confounding moment?